By Julia Loman, Phase I Fellow
Fall is in full swing on the mountain.
It would be incorrect to say summer is easing into fall, because it almost feels like summer never arrived in the first place - the drizzly, sometimes steadily raining weather has been a near constant this season. Our proof that we have not just been in an extended spring since May is the abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers that we carry out from our garden in bushel baskets. We are enjoying the fruits of our labor, quite literally-- squash, greens, beets, carrots, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and many more grace our tables and our farmers’ market stands.
And, as the growing season comes to an end and we anticipate the long winter ahead, our sturdier vegetables are finding their way to our root cellar and other storage rooms. While the weather is still rather balmy, these preparations revolve around the ever-important frost date-- that is, the average first date that temperatures dip below freezing, killing many sensitive plants. At our farm, this date is September 20. Of course, this date has now passed. This means we must check the weather daily for the predicted overnight low, and ready the gardens as necessary. While the temperatures aren’t dipping too low at night quite yet, we are getting some of the important tasks out of the way: putting beds to rest, seeding some last-minute cover crops, and harvesting our potatoes.
With a whole garden of beds to prepare for winter, we’re hoping the frost holds off as long as possible! When it does seem like a night might dip into the 29-32 degree range, though, we have an action plan.
Our fall season extension is a multi-faceted approach to getting a few more days or weeks out of crops that might otherwise not make it through a harsh night. Remay, our row cover, can provide a few degrees of warmth to plants that are close to making it anyway. These can stay on during the day, since they allow diffuse sunlight to come in. A thick layer of hay can protect our carrots or other root vegetables, if we haven’t managed to get them out of the ground.
Thankfully, our high tunnel shields more delicate plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers very well. By closing the sides and the doors, we can trap some heat in there. If it gets very cold, and we want a few more days out of our tomatoes, we might even cover them with huge blankets! Of course, these can’t stay on too long or they prevent light and air from reaching the precious tomato plants.
During these questionable days on the very edge of a killing frost, we’re likely to be found hurriedly harvesting basil, summer squash, and our other delicate plants. If it holds off a bit longer, we’ll manage to harvest carrots, beets and jerusalem artichokes before the frost hits. We’ll be busy setting up poles to support rows of remay, affixing blankets, and spreading hay. This mad rush, and the suspense of coming down in the morning to see if our efforts have been successful, will continue until eventually one devastating freeze will get cold enough to wither just about everything left in the garden.
At the end of the day, it’s not in mourning that we put our garden to rest for the winter. Instead, it’s with the satisfaction of a good year of cultivating and harvesting, tending the earth and sharing fresh food with each other and our community. The winter provides a welcome break for planning and introspection - a time to reflect on what went well this year and what didn’t, and how to handle certain challenges next year.
I might feel a rush of disappointment when we quit hastily covering the last of our precious crops and give in to the change in season. But, as a beautiful consolation, I can visit the root cellar chock-full of carrots, beets, potatoes and rutabaga, or the basement pantry stocked with colorful jars of tomato sauce and peach jam- sunshine in jars, or the rooms full of winter squash and baskets of garlic and onions. And I can dream about next year’s garden, preferably wrapped up in a cozy sweater with a cup of tea.